Robotics and its 47% problem

An alternate vision of the future of robotics, courtesy of Disney.

In Robotics: A Route to the Survival of Advanced Societies?, Dwight D. Murphey commits several fallacies, and some of his ideas are even downright offensive. Among other things, he consistently demonizes immigration, insists on the “declining willingness of younger American workers to do factory work” (Murphey 412), and even gives off an almost Romney-47%-esque tone when discussing labor’s “new demands”:

It will require a large number of very bright people to develop and operate the technology. Remembering, however, that those bright people will be on the far right end of the bell curve of intelligence, we know that we are left with hundreds of millions, indeed billions, of people who can benefit from the productivity but will have contributed little, if anything, to it (Murphey 419).

Yet perhaps Murphey’s biggest error resides in his fundamental belief that he can argue a case for robotic labor “in a manner acceptable to free-market adherents” (Murphey 399). This premise stands in sharp contrast to the one expressed by the editors of Cutting Edge: Technology, Information, Capitalism and Social Revolution, who write in their introduction,

We enthusiastically welcome the promise of technology for ending material scarcity and for creating a foundation for higher forms of human fulfillment. Yet we suspect the application of electronic technology within the framework of capitalism will not only fail to accomplish these ends, but exacerbate the misery and poverty in which most of the world already lives. (Davis, Hirschl, and Stack, 3).

Tessa Morris-Suzuki echoes the editors’ sentiment in her essay Robots and Capitalism by pointing out “highly automated systems are appearing within a world economy marked by grotesque international inequalities of wealth, and are likely to amplify these inequalities” (Morris-Suzuki 25). In an essay on “Why Machines Cannot Create Value,” C. George Caffentzis likewise refutes Murphey’s free-market utopian proposal by explaining Marx’s theory of machines, in which he asserts “No machine can create new value nor transfer more value to its product than it loses” (Caffentzis 40, italics original). Earlier, Caffentzis characterizes the fruitless quest for a perpetuun mobile as the search for “the new philosopher’s stone” or “the goose that laid the golden egg” (Caffentzis 37, 39). Indeed, Marx’s zero-value view of fully mechanized labor (supported by the laws of thermodynamics) makes considerably more logical sense than Murphey’s awkward and nebulous ideas regarding how “remuneration” will be allocated to the “billions of people who can benefit from the productivity but will have contributed little, if anything, to it” (Murphey 419).

G. Carchedi’s essay High-Tech Hype: Promises and Realities of Technology in the Twenty-First Century similarly puts the brakes on Murphey’s brand of enthusiasm by employing Marx’s theory of crises to assert “technological innovations under capitalism create a global cornucopia for some, but at the same time cause economic crises and all the human misery associated with them” (Carchedi 74). In developing Marx’s theory, Carchedi lays bare the “basic contradiction” overlooked by Murphey and other champions of automation within the context of free-market capitalism: such a system inevitably creates “on the one hand, higher productivity in physical terms; but on the other, lower production of value and thus lower purchasing power” (Carchedi 83).

I won’t deny the initial attractiveness of Murphey’s vision for the role robotics might play in solving the countless problems faced by advanced societies. Yet given the perspectives offered in Cutting Edge, Murphey’s article reads more and more like a siren song, one whose hidden agenda is that of luring the huddled, aging, jobless, left-of-the-bell-curve masses to buy into the false promises of technology, march to the drumbeat of insatiable consumerism, and ultimately fall prey to the trap of (in the words of George Carlin) “buying shit they don’t need with money they don’t have.”

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A Serious Comedian: Honoré Daumier’s Critique of Photography and Modern Society

The caption beneath this 1862 lithograph by French caricature artist Honoré Daumier reads “Nadar elevating Photography to the height of Art.” The print comically typecasts Gaspard-Félix Tournachon (known as Nadar) as a mad scientist or absent-minded professor figure who—in his excitement to capture the perfect shot—is unwittingly about to lose his top hat. Below him, inscribed on every building in Paris, is the word “Photographie.” In many ways, this satirical depiction of one of the most prominent photographers in Paris works to capture the essence of the 19th century debate over whether or not this new medium of photography could be considered “art.” At the time this print appeared in the journal Le Boulevard, Nadar was already well known for taking the first aerial photograph of Paris four years earlier in 1858. He likewise “had a flair for showmanship, and was much in the public eye as a balloonist” (Gernsheim 57). When Nadar later came out with a popular series of aerial photographs, Daumier seized the opportunity “to mock at Nadar’s claims of raising photography to the height of art” (Gernsheim 58).

As a comical yet serious critique on the new medium of photography, Daumier’s print illustrates some of the tensions between immediacy, hypermediacy, and remediation put forth by Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin in Remediation. “Photography,” they write, “provides an important example of the social debate that can surround the logics of immediacy and hypermediacy” (Bolter and Grusin 72). Yet far from being something entirely “new,” they argue, photography was merely a remediation of painting, a “mechanical and chemical process, whose automatic character seemed to many to complete the earlier trend to conceal both the process and the artist” (Bolter and Grusin 25). Nonetheless, as evidenced by Daumier’s sarcastic take on both the literal and figurative “elevation” of photography, the debate over whether or not photography went “too far” by eliminating the artist altogether was indeed a lively one (Bolter and Grusin 25). Furthermore, if the logic of immediacy is that “the medium itself should disappear and leave us in the presence of the thing represented,” Daumier’s choice to repeatedly inscribe the word “Photographie” on the buildings below Nadar can be read as a deliberate attempt to remind and/or warn viewers of the still-mediated nature of photography (Bolter and Grusin 6). In this respect, Daumier’s hypermediated print cautions its audiences not to be seduced by the photographer’s false claims of achieving transparency.

Yet beyond the familiar photography-as-art debate, when understood historically, perhaps “Nadar elevating Photography to the height of Art” expresses some wider political anxieties over the accelerated growth, industrialization, and resultant cultural changes characteristic of modern French society in the 19th century. Appearing at the early stages of what Anthony Giddens terms “an epoch of ‘radicalised modernity,’” Daumier’s print can be viewed as a comment on the shifting roles of journalism and the press (Webster 203). Given the sharp and explicit political nature of Daumier’s other work (e.g. Rue Transnonain, which gruesomely depicts a family of silk weavers slaughtered in their beds by the French National Guard), it seems reasonable to assume “Nadar elevating Photography to the height of Art” likewise has political undertones. In fact, it is not surprising that this print appeared during an era marked by what Jürgen Habermas described as “the structural transformation of the press” (Habermas 186). This particular age, Habermas argues, saw a shift away from a journalism of “private men of letters” toward a commercialized, commodified mass media (Habermas 188). Daumier’s choice to ridicule the “elevation” of a new and highly sensationalized medium shows that he was both sensitive to and critical of the “new” journalistic directions signified by Nadar’s successes. While perhaps primarily comical, this print suggests its artist was far from comfortable with the advent of what Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno would later term the “culture industry.”

Finally, a particularly chilling aspect of Daumier’s lithograph is the way in which it foreshadows a modern surveillance society. There is something implicitly intrusive about a man with a camera flying in a balloon above the streets of Paris, and this print succeeds in capturing that sentiment. Yet even more explicit is the fact that Nadar’s balloon was repurposed for military use during the 1870 Siege of Paris. In fact, the photographer himself even commanded an “observation balloon corps” (Gernsheim 58). In this respect, “Nadar elevating Photography to the height of Art” can be viewed as an anticipation of Foucault’s metaphor for modern society as a “Panopticon” (Webster 223). In any case, like most good comedy, this initially humorous lithograph certainly has a more serious side, particularly when viewed in the context of Remediation, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, and Theories of the Information Society.

Works Cited

Bolter, David J. and Richard Grusin. Remediation: Understanding New Media. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press. 2000. Print.

Daumier, Honoré. “Nadar elevating Photography to the height of Art.” 1862 lithograph. Google Images. Web. 26 September 2012.

Gernsheim, Helmut . A Concise History of Photography. New York: Dover Publications. 1986. Print.

Habermas, Jürgen. The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society. Trans. Thomas Burger. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press. 1989. Print.

Webster, Frank. Theories of the Information Society.  3rd Ed. London: Routledge. 2006.  Print.

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The Heaviness of a Weightless Society

I found it quite telling that in his analysis of the new “weightless” economy in Theories of the Information Society, Frank Webster felt the need to remind us how the phrase “living on thin air” was “once a familiar admonition given by the worldly wise to those reluctant to earn a living by the sweat of their brow” (Webster 15). And even though he immediately goes on to relegate such advice as “outdated,” I couldn’t help but sympathize with the good old-fashioned logic it represents. After all, it is in fact still impossible to live on thin air. And yet that is precisely what an “information” or “post-industrial society” (PIS) feigns to do. The reality, of course, is a far less tidy one—a world inconveniently occupied by sweatshop labor, polluted rivers, credit default swaps, melting polar ice caps, etc. etc.—those familiar yet often sanitized casualties of the “more for less” ethos of a “post-industrial” society. But I digress.

In evaluating Daniel Bell’s claims about PIS, Webster highlights some of Bell’s oversimplifications and persistently questions the extent to which such a society represents a “novel” break from the past. Webster eventually concludes that “the growth of service occupations and associated developments highlight the continuities of the present with the past” (59, italics original). While Webster’s ambivalence toward Bell is evidenced in his characterization of the author’s best-known work as a “good bad book,” I found myself feeling much more uncomfortable with some of the pillars of post-Fordism Webster discusses in Chapter Four (35).

For one, I couldn’t help but cringe every time I read words and phrases like flexible specialization (62), jobless growth (77), outsourcing (78), competitiveness (78), and contingency workforce (81). While these attributes might be beneficial to the upper echelons of an increasingly globalized hyper-capitalistic “more for less” society, they certainly do not bode well for anyone who still has delusions of eventually landing a stable living-wage job with decent health insurance and a retirement plan. I find it difficult to imagine the average “flexible” employee—no matter how lucrative his or her short-term “projects” might be—realizing and/or sustaining the typical American Dream of, say, paying a mortgage, feeding and buying shoes for 2.5 children, and maybe even getting to take a road trip to the Grand Canyon every once in a while. But perhaps this is precisely the point. Webster characterizes post-Fordist society as one fraught with “upheaval and ephemera” and a “lack of fixity in everything that we do” (93).

Manuel Castells foresees in this “lack of fixity” the demise of the traditional working class (112). Herbert Schiller points to the vast population of those “overlooked” in the information society, namely “the poor, the disadvantaged, the nations outside Europe and North America” as a way to temper the uncritical enthusiasm of information society cheerleaders (125). Rather than functioning as a democratic public resource, Schiller voices concerns over the ways in which “information is increasingly being commodified” and thus it must “be treated like most other things within a capitalist order (143).

This conflict over the commodification of information comes to a head in Theodor Adorno and Jürgen Habermas’ observations regarding any society in which capitalism is victorious: “the autonomy of individuals is radically reduced, the capacity for critical thought is minimal, there is no real space for a public sphere in an era of transnational media conglomerates and a pervasive culture of advertising” (167). Webster makes a somewhat feeble attempt to mitigate this undeniably gloomy de facto death of the public sphere by citing the success of “public service institutions” like the BBC, public libraries, and museums and art galleries, but in addressing some of the challenges faced by these institutions he concedes “there is strong reason to concur with Habermas’ pessimism: the public sphere is being denuded by professionalized ‘opinion management’ and the partisan forces of commercialism” (198).

Regardless of the specific label ascribed to our current and/or future reality, there are some pretty serious consequences to our “information” or “post-industrial” or “post-Fordist” society. It might be that the recent financial crisis has had somewhat of a sobering effect on much of the enthusiasm over our “weightless” information society, but I still have my doubts. One only has to listen to some of the campaign rhetoric (on both sides) championing unbridled “growth” and “competition” to realize we have more or less collectively ignored the myriad critical perspectives Webster offers in Theories of the Information Society.

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Public Opinion: A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing

In The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society Jürgen Habermas presents an impressive account of the rise and transformation of “public opinion” as both idea and ideology. In this dense and difficult text, Habermas chronicles the rise of a bourgeois public sphere in Western Europe from the late seventeenth century on as feudalism made way for industrialization and capitalism. Yet Habermas’ narrative works in part to expose how the relatively new idea of “public opinion” is at best restrictive and naïve and at worst manipulative and oppressive.

From a twenty-first century perspective, the restrictive nature of the “public sphere” and the “public opinion” it produced is almost painfully obvious. Habermas points to this exclusivity by describing the public sphere as the result of a “complicated constellation of social preconditions” (Habermas 88). Most notably, this “complicated constellation” included the fact that the “public” was limited to a relatively small group of educated, property-owning male citizens. Hence, a majority of the population (including all women and anyone who didn’t own property) was categorically excluded from the “public.”

Likewise, the idea that public opinion somehow unerringly reflected the rational, moral, and “correct” way of seeing the world seems either completely arrogant or quaintly naïve from a twenty-first century perspective. Though Habermas shows how this belief was altered over time, at one point it was indeed thought that “people in their reliable common sense were, so to speak, unerring” (93). This idea of public opinion as a “principle of enlightenment and as a sphere in which reason realized itself” (120) was perhaps most harshly critiqued by Karl Marx, who “denounced public opinion as false consciousness: it hid before itself its own true character as a mask of bourgeois class interests” (124).

In addition to being restrictive and somewhat naïve, public opinion can easily be used to manipulate the public in both political and economic ways. The commodification of the press in the nineteenth century brought about an era in which public opinion served as a vehicle for the “psychological manipulation of advertising” (190). In economic terms, this manipulation works to raise a society of “skilled consumers” (192). In political terms “‘[e]ngineering of consent’ is the central task, for only in the climate of such a consensus does ‘promotion to the ‘public,’ suggesting or urging acceptance or rejection of a person, product, organization, or idea,’ succeed”  (192).

At several points throughout The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere Habermas hints at the concept of “industrial feudalism” or the “refeudalization” of capitalist society, but he perhaps does so most explicitly in his final chapter, “On the Concept of Public Opinion.” Here we see how public opinion has become a vehicle for oppression: “all those behaviors of population groups would be designated as public opinion that are apt to modify or preserve the structures, practices, and goals of the system of domination” (243).

The tragic irony of refeudalization is the way in which the public sphere has been dismantled by the insatiable excesses of the same force (capitalism) that worked to establish it in the first place. Ours indeed seems to be an era of refeudalization, an era in which the incessant and almost entirely one-way channels of public relations and mass media have supplanted any remnants of rational-critical “public” debate. That public opinion has been used for manipulative and oppressive economic and political ends clearly speaks of the decline of Habermas’ ideal of an enlightened public sphere in which a vigorous rational-critical debate aimed to solve societal problems. Yet the inherently restrictive and naïve nature of “public” opinion calls into question the extent to which such a sphere ever really existed to begin with.

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The darker side of remediation

I found this week’s supplemental reading from Dialectic of Enlightenment to be an excellent complement to Bolter and Grusin’s Remediation. Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno’s opening observations on modern life immediately addressed one of my chief reservations about some of the so-called “progress” achieved by remediation:

Even now the older houses just outside the concrete city centers look like slums, and the new bungalows on the outskirts are at one with the flimsy structures of world fairs in their praise of technical progress and their built-in demand to be discarded after a short while like empty food cans.

–Horkheimer and Adorno, 1111

Some of remediation’s collateral damage.

The term for this sort of “built-in demand to be discarded” is planned obsolescence, and while it no doubt maximizes short-term corporate profits, it has devastating ecological consequences. While this idea of planned obsolescence wasn’t the focus of the authors’ critique of our so-called “culture industry,” it nonetheless made me feel like a little less of a Luddite for my intuitive suspicion of our culture’s incessant drive to remediate.

Since the authors of Remediation clearly stated that the aim of their text was not to “pass judgment on” but to “explain our current cultural movement” (Bolter and Grusin 78), I was grateful to have the opportunity to read Horkheimer and Adorno’s more critical analysis of the “culture industry,” specifically their critique of the way popular culture works to manipulate us into passive, compliant workers and consumers. In an endless progression of remediation, the culture industry has insufficiently replaced previous forms of entertainment, leaving the masses culturally bankrupt and effectively “stunting” our “powers of imagination and spontaneity” (Horkheimer and Adorno 1113).

The culture industry works to thwart any efforts at resistance by offering endless pleasure and amusement and enforcing a top-down, supply-side economics in which each individual is reduced to “the eternal consumer” (1119). In this way, the culture industry has carefully structured its forms of pleasure, amusement, and entertainment to promote helplessness and flight from “the last remaining thought of resistance” (1119).

I can’t help but wonder what Horkheimer and Adorno might write today, nearly 70 years after Dialectic of Enlightenment was first published. In any case, their biting critique of the culture industry stands in sharp contrast to Bolter and Grusin’s ostensibly neutral “exploration” of new media. The authors of Remediation baldly state, “To condemn new media is to condemn contemporary culture itself—in a kind of jeremiad that has made a few humanists wealthy but has not helped to explain our current cultural movement” (Bolter and Grusin 78).

I am not sure if Horkheimer or Adorno or any other members of the Frankfurt School became wealthy because of their ideas, but they do seem to anticipate this sort of reticence toward “value judgments” in contemporary culture: “The words that are not means appear senseless; the others seem to be fiction, untrue. Value judgments are taken either as advertising or as empty talk” (Horkheimer and Adorno 1121). The result appears to be a radical and pervasive cynicism and paralysis in which any sort of ideology “becomes a vigorous and prearranged promulgation of the status quo” (1121).

Horkheimer and Adorno’s “jeremiad” against the culture industry exposes the narrative of remediation as tragedy. Humanity has somehow figured out how to split an atom, travel to the moon, and develop pocket-sized computers, yet 925 million people on this planet still do not have enough to eat. This is one of the many tragedies of the culture industry. Its insatiable drive toward “‘fully exploiting’ available technical resources and the facilities for aesthetic mass consumption,” is ultimately “part of the economic system which refuses to exploit resources to abolish hunger” (1117).

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Thoughts on “Remediation”

In Remediation: Understanding New Media, Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin explore the concepts of remediation, immediacy, and hypermediacy. Their approach is genealogical (in the Foucauldian sense) and thus focuses not on origins, but on affiliations or resonances. Indeed, the authors’ case for what they term the “double logic” of remediation seems to borrow from Foucault’s deeply paradoxical argument in The History of Sexuality.

Just as Foucault seeks to reverse the “repressive hypothesis” of modern industrial societies in the 17th century by maintaining that age in fact saw a “multiplication of discourses” concerning sex, Bolter and Grusin exhaustively explore the “double logic” of remediation in which our culture “wants to erase its media in the very act of multiplying them” (Bolter and Grusin 5). The authors label this desire for erasure the “logic of immediacy,” which “dictates that the medium itself should disappear and leave us in the presence of the thing represented” (6). Yet, according to Bolter and Grusin, remediation consists of the dialectic between this sort of immediacy and hypermediacy in which the viewer is explicitly aware of the medium.

Remediation, as a defining characteristic of new media, compels us to reconsider our idea of new media as entirely “new.” On the contrary, new media—whether computer games, television, or the Internet—always refashion prior forms of media. Following the poststructuralist argument that each sign is dependent every other sign for its meaning, remediation is “dependent on another, indeed many other, acts of mediation” (56).

One possible flaw in this otherwise straightforward logic of remediation is the fact that Bolter and Grusin never satisfactorily address the disconnect between the poststructuralist denial of the “real” and a new medium’s claim to be “better in some way at achieving the real or the authentic” (66). This omission is at least partially explained by the authors’ consistent insistence on the fact that new media and technologies simply “conform to and carry out our cultural preferences” (218). Therefore, “to condemn new media is to condemn contemporary culture itself” (78). The authors likewise dismiss as “old fashioned” Bauldrillard’s claim that “television is a cultural device for covering up the absence of the real,” noting how such a claim is based on a Renaissance logic of transparency, whereas for our contemporary culture “the logic of hypermediacy is at least as compelling” (194).

It seems useless to disagree with or deny the fact that remediation, complete with its oscillations between immediacy and hypermediacy, is the dominant logic of contemporary culture. Yet I still found myself wanting more from Bolter and Grusin in the way of analysis and critique, an impulse they staunchly resisted throughout their text. T.S. Eliot wasn’t shy about saying the disjointed and difficult style of his poetry reflected the difficulty of modern society. Indeed, the palpable barrenness and disorientation of “The Waste Land” works to give an authentic representation of postwar society. In Eliot’s time, as in ours, the medium most certainly is the message. It is my hope that in the progression of this seminar on The Politics of Information, I will, among other things, have a better chance to explore more of the implications of our increasingly remediated society.

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